by Karlijn Jacobs-de Hoon, Clinic Director

Approximately 15% of children will experience a learning disability of some kind. This means that almost every teacher will encounter such a child at some point in their career. But how to share your initial concerns with the parents? We asked our Clinic Director, Karlijn De Hoon, to share her thoughts regarding how to approach that difficult conversation.

Preparation

It is important to speak out; studies show that the earlier a child starts to have help with their learning difficulties, the more likely they are to succeed in coping with them. Firstly, talk to previous teachers. Build up an idea of the child’s educational background. Is this a new problem? Has it been observed before? This helps you understand the history and development of the child. While doing this, contact your administrators, they may have systems already in place for dealing with these problems, and you want them on board from the very beginning.

“It is important to speak out; studies show that the earlier a child starts to have help with their learning difficulties, the more likely they are to succeed in coping with them.”

The next part is to collect data, as it is vital to present to the parents not just your opinions, but a real body of evidence that shows there could be a problem. Parents may be initially skeptical or defensive and you need to protect yourself, as well as help convince and provide them with information they may need to cope with this. Ask a colleague to observe the child, or maybe a school counselor to conduct an assessment. Any exam records are useful, especially if they show trends over time. If you can, ask the parents casually if they have noticed anything similar to what your concerned about. You could also ask an expert organization such as ELG to come in and do an initial assessment or observation

You might want to research potential future paths for the child ahead of time, but view this more as being able to provide options as opposed to dictating what the family should do. Also collect printed information before hand, as the parents will need a chance to reflect after the meeting, and any materials you give them will help. At ELG we have a selection of information and hand-outs available, which include potential courses of treatment.

On the day of the meeting you need to think carefully about the venue. It should be somewhere quiet where you will not be disturbed, as well as a place in which the parents will feel comfortable. If you suspect that they will be upset, bring tissues and try to set boundaries. One hour should be enough time. If you are worried about violence, place yourself closest to the door. You could also instruct a colleague to come and check on you halfway through.

“It is vital that this meeting is just between yourself and the parents; the child should not participate. This conversation may be emotional and difficult, and you want to shield the child from this.”

The most important thing is to not diagnose or name the condition yourself. Diagnosis of special needs takes hours of standardized assessment in multiple settings by a professional, and every child is different.

The Meeting

The most important thing is to not diagnose or name the condition yourself. Diagnosis of special needs takes hours of standardized assessment in multiple settings by a professional, and every child is different. You are not here to judge or label the child. Even if you are certain you know the specific problem, do not mention it. You should merely state the facts, that you are concerned about a certain aspect of a child’s development. Phrases such as “your child has ADHD” can only be responded to with yes or no, and you are here to have a conversation, not an argument. Avoid negative statements, such as “your child is struggling with reading.” Instead, emphasise that you are concerned about the child. You are on the same team as the parents and you all want the same thing: for the child to grow into a successful and happy adult.

Be sensitive. In the United States, special needs are often managed within the school system, and the parents may not be used to the idea of getting help from outside the school. Other countries have less of a heritage of
dealing with these problems, and you may need to educate the parents about the subject. Some people may be more abrupt and want to come to the point; others will need to build up to it slowly after a more general chat. There is no one right way of doing this, and the more you can empathise with the parents the more successful this meeting will be.

“The more you can empathise with the parents the more successful this meeting will be.”

Be careful about the language that you use. Try to avoid specific reference to therapy, it carries connotations and may upset the parents. Instead talk about supporting the child. Do not talk about curing, but instead about helping and coping. You need to not only explain the current problem, but also why this will be an issue in the future. While a lisp may be unimportant at a young age, it can lead to insecurity in teenage years. Small language acquisition problems in kindergarten can prevent the child from accessing other subjects later. This will help the parents to understand why support is important.

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